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20 Ways the Earth Could End by Cory Powell                      

What a great idea for an article. And the delivery is clear, scary, and astonishing. Some of the disasters envisioned by Cory Powell—flood basalt volcanism—will happen, provided something else doesn't destroy the earth before then. Others—mass insanity—appear less probable. The big issues are how we prevent and respond to them. Flood basalt volcanism is serious. A flood-basalt volcano 65 million years ago spewed 100,000 times the lava as an Icelandic monster volcano in 1783. An even earlier volcano wiped out 95 percent of species. The “little” 1783 Icelandic volcano reduced U.S. winter temperatures nine degrees Fahrenheit.


As unbelievably energetic as flood-basalt volcanism is, other disasters are at least as horrible. A collision with an asteroid or other large space object looms. The Kuiper belt at the fringes of the solar system contains about 100,000 ice bricks larger than 50 miles across. Even much smaller asteroids produce impacts releasing more energy than all the nuclear weapons in the world. I read elsewhere a collision with an asteroid six miles in diameter produces the energy equivalent of 200 million megatons of TNT, almost ten billion times as much energy as the Hiroshima bomb. The Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet fragments colliding with Jupiter in 1994 released over 100 million megatons of TNT equivalent energy. (Geez, 1994? It seemed liked yesterday. I feel old.)


A gamma ray burst from a nearby star would obliterate the ozone layer and decimate the bottom of the food chain. Gamma ray bursts produce ten to the 16th power more power than the sun. Our sun is also capable of producing a solar super flare that would increase its brightness by a factor of 20, enough to reduce us to ashes. The sun could also dim, producing a super ice age. Many cold periods in the past resulted from solar dimming. Volcano holes were the only part of the earth not covered with ice 700 million years ago. A build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freed the earth from the big ice age.


Powell claims about ten million black holes lurk in the Milky

Way. A rogue black hole could knock earth from the solar system, alter earth’s orbit, or invite earth to lunch. Powell waxes very, very exotic. He claims a particle accelerator disaster could produce a mini black hole that slowly munches on earth. Many of the killers mentioned by Powell could kill billions—super epidemics, super toxins, world wars, bio weapons—but I doubt they could kill everyone. Other exotic killers offered by Powell: God, alien invaders, smart robots. This is among the best articles ever. Highly recommended.


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   Article review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009.



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